At the center of Under Armour’s origin story, the lead character tends to be Kevin Plank, the company’s charismatic CEO, who launched the company back in 1996 and made headlines this week when he quit President Trump’s manufacturing council.
But Under Armour was actually founded by three guys in their mid-twenties who had all spent the previous few years as collegiate athletes. When Plank had the idea to create a high performance undershirt for athletes, he brought on his close friend from prep school, Ryan Wood, who had played at Arizona State and the Dallas Cowboys, and Kip Fulks, who had played major league lacrosse.
Together, the trio gathered in Plank’s grandmother’s basement in Georgetown, in the years after their sports careers were over, with big dreams of starting the next great American sportswear brand. “We were 24 and invincible,” Wood recalls.
Two decades later, that plan doesn’t sound so crazy. Plank is still leading the company, which is now a $4 billion behemoth, the third-largest sportswear brand, behind Nike and Adidas. Fulks was appointed to the role of chief product officer last year. Wood, on the other hand, decided to leave Under Armour after 10 years of leading the company’s sales and marketing efforts. “I spent eight years in startup mode here in the U.S., then I went to Amsterdam to set up our global presence, doing the startup thing all over again for two more years,” Wood tells Fast Company. “Those were hard years. After doing it twice, I was burned out.”
After 10 grueling years of helping transform Under Armour from a scrappy startup to a publicly traded company that generated nearly $1 billion in sales, he needed a break. Since leaving the company, he’s been working as a cowboy. Literally.
He moved back to his hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and opened a cattle ranch called Sweetwood that is on track to sell $3 million in steaks and beef jerky this year. He achieved this in part by reaching out to athletic programs at major universities–much like he did at Under Armour–offering tasty, high-protein meat snacks for athletes to snack on while competing.
But from his blissful vantage point in Colorado–where his days are filled with running a small business, fly fishing, and piloting his jet–he’s kept tabs on all the drama and turmoil at the company he helped build.
Over the last few months, the headlines haven’t been good. So far this year, stocks have been down 36%. Under Armour’s sales have slowed. Last week, the company had to lay off 280 employees, while Plank brings on a team of new leaders to help set the company’s course going forward. And in February, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Kevin Plank called him “a real asset to this country” which outraged many people. Customers promptly began burning their Under Armour sneakers, and the brand’s celebrity endorsers like Steph Curry and Misty Copeland publicly criticized him. In response, Plank took out a full-page ad in the Baltimore Sun to clarify his comments, but the fallout from that crisis still seems to be lingering.
For Wood, all of this hit home hard. After all, Under Armour was his baby. “I feel for Kevin,” Wood says. “I saw the news: I know how personally Kevin probably took having to let some people go. Some of the guys that got fired were people I hired 15 years ago. That’s painful.”
But having been there from the beginning, Wood has seen Under Armour go through many ups and downs in the past. He also has some interesting insights into what initially contributed to the brand’s great success, which might be worth remembering as the company works to regain its footing.
Storytelling Matters More Than Complex Technology
Under Armour’s success is largely credited to its first product, a synthetic undershirt that wicked away sweat. Plank, Fulks, and Wood were all convinced that a shirt like this would be a game changer. “We knew how crappy it was to wear a cotton T-shirt,” Wood says. “I would be in football training camp with temperatures hitting 110 and 115 degrees. I would walk out on the grass before practice had started and I’d be soaked, carrying around three pounds of weight underneath my pads just from sweating.”
So the they set out to develop this initial product. But Under Armour wasn’t the first company to develop performance fabrics. Several years before Nike had already created Dri-Fit and marketed it to a small group of elite runners and cyclists. Wood believes the big difference was that Under Armour found a way to make its high-tech fabrics relevant to a large group of consumers. “Instead of a hangtag that had ten pages telling you about all the crazy technology happening in this swatch of fabric, we told a simple story: You can trust us to provide you with a shirt that is going to make you better on the field,” Wood says.
In other words, innovation is great, but it’s important not to get so lost in the technology that you forget your goal is to meet the needs of your customer.
“You Have To Earn The Right To Be A Brand”
These days, there are entire MBA courses and job roles devoted to branding strategies. But Wood believes that, in some ways, branding is not something that a company can control. It is all about how the consumer perceives the brand.
In Under Armour’s early years, Wood remembers that the founders were focused on gaining customer loyalty by creating products that really helped them. “People like to talk about branding strategies,” Wood says.”But I believe you have to earn the right to be a brand. Initially, as you’re getting to that point, you’re building products for your consumer base that they trust.”
This meant slowly and deliberately building authentic relationships. At a granular level, this meant that Under Armour was speaking to athletes every day, understanding the ins and outs of their everyday lives, and giving them what they needed. “It was easy for people to see Under Armour as an apparel company, but I saw what we were selling as equipment,” Wood says. “Sports has become a game of inches: if you’re not working out year round, if you’re not eating right, if you’re not wearing the right base layer, you’re going to be at a disadvantage.”
Bouncing Back Is Easier Than It Seems
Wood disagrees. He remembers plenty of times over the years when things were really difficult. After all, he was there right at the beginning when Under Armour was nothing but a scrappy startup that made one product and could go out of business at any time. In those years, they didn’t have enough money to hire other people. “We put heat seals on shirts, did runs out to Fedex and UPS, and took out the trash,” he recalls.
There were many bumps in the road in those years, including moments when they lost big accounts or had to push through years of recession. But thanks to good leadership and what Wood calls, “grit,” the company never folded, but did what it took to weather the storm. “We fought through things that in our eyes were much bigger than what is going on right now in year two, year four, and year five,” he says. “These are stories that people might never know about but that seemed big to us.”
All of this gives Wood hope that Under Armour has what it takes to stick around. “Under Armour is not a flash in the pan technology company that became a $5 billion brand overnight,” Wood says. “It has 23 years of history. I think this history will help them find their way to a better path.”